With a microphone in his hand before an audience of fishing enthusiasts, outdoors television personality Ron Schara graciously welcomed Gov. Tim Walz this week to the first-ever Minnesota Fisheries Summit.
He thanked Walz for attending the forum on how best to sustain strong fishing across the state, then he cut to the chase:
Will the governor support a push by anglers in the final weeks of the legislative session to win $60 million in bonding money for badly needed hatchery repairs and another $37 million to upgrade public boat launches?
Before Walz could reply, Schara reminded him emphatically that fishing is not only a cornerstone to the quality of life in Minnesota, but it creates $4.4 billion of economic impact. And, yet, lawmakers appropriate zero tax dollars from the state's general fund to support the industry. "Zero,'' Schara repeated. Do politicians realize how important it is to invest in fishing?
Walz took the bait. The governor assured the crowd of about 75 anglers, guides, lobbyists, business owners, tourism officials and staff from the Department of Natural Resources that the pitch for bonding money will receive his support.
"I'll make it a priority in final negotiations,'' he said.
The bonding request was set forth by MN-FISH, a nonprofit coalition formed in late 2018 to represent the fishing interests of all anglers and industry stakeholders. With Schara as its president, MN-FISH hosted Tuesday's fisheries summit at the request of DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen. She attended the gathering at Clam Outdoors in Rogers along with the commissioners of Explore Minnesota and the Department of Employment and Economic Development. The meeting was part of a revamped celebration of this year's walleye and northern pike fishing season opener. Opening Day is May 14.
Walz told the group it's right to emphasize the economic importance of fishing while asking the Legislature for support. In the realm of all outdoor recreation in Minnesota, fishing is far above other activities in terms of creating jobs and producing economic impact, he said.
"Your cause is righteous,'' Walz said. And if you don't "raise heck'' at the Capitol, he added, legislators will assume you don't need help.
He said the state's massive budget surplus is providing a special opportunity for significant investment in infrastructure. "There's damn sure plenty of room'' for fisheries projects, he said. Unless Minnesota invests in fishing and other things that feed the economy, he added, the state could face economic losses, not budget surpluses.
Plenty to talk about
At the four-hour summit meeting, discussion topics included walleye stocking, shore fishing, DNR staffing shortages, recruitment of anglers and access to public waters.
Christina Lemke, an avid catfish angler who largely fishes from shore, told the group that she was happy to hear that the DNR is striving to improve shore-fishing opportunities. Especially in and around the Twin Cities, she said, it's become too dangerous for her to fish by herself in certain areas.
She cited, as one example, Hidden Falls on the Mississippi River. The public site is littered and sometimes crowded with people who aren't fishing, she said. "I would love to see safety increase,'' Lemke said.
Nancy Stewart, DNR water recreation consultant, was asked during a separate discussion if the DNR is working to expand public access to fishing lakes via new boat ramps. She said the agency's land acquisition program for those sites is "very, very small right now'' due to lack of funds.
On the issue of attracting new anglers and reversing negative participation trends, MN-FISH board member Garry Leaf said it would be a good idea to strengthen DNR's Fishing in the Neighborhood (FiN) program. FiN builds piers and other infrastructure to provide local fishing opportunities within the seven-county metro area. The program depends on professional lake management, including aeration and fish stocking. Leaf said the program deserves strong hatchery support.
Jimmy Bell, another MN-FISH board member, said high school fishing tournaments and leagues have attracted a tremendous number of young people to the sport. In turn, a lot of those kids have re-engaged parents in fishing.
"How do we keep them engaged?'' Bell asked. "That's the key for us.''
Minnesota Fisheries Chief Brad Parsons fielded several questions about walleye stocking. He emphasized that decisions on fry and more-expensive fingerling stocking are derived from individual lake management plans. "More is not always better,'' he said.
Asked how he could best improve fishing in Minnesota if handed a windfall of undesignated money, Parsons said he would add staff. With more people, the DNR could generate more individualized lake management plans to improve habitat and expand fishing opportunities. Those adaptive plans can't be produced without research, including fish counts, angler surveys and habitat studies, he said.
"Fishing is really good in Minnesota,'' Parsons said, "but we can make it better.''